Political observers are not surprised that there is no black, native or colored woman on the city council of Edmonton. Changing it, he says, takes more than just openness to vote for diverse candidates.
The Edmonton City Council was once the entry point for women in politics, producing men like John Rymer, the first woman mayor of Edmonton, as well as for men of color to begin their political careers.
But municipal politics have changed, said Alberta pollster and political critic Janet Brown.
“We are now coming to an era where women of color are entering politics. But that is not happening now,” Brown said.
“Women’s representation, at the municipal level, seems to come down to the representation of people of color. We are stumbling or moving backwards.”
As party politics creep into city politics and municipal positions become more desirable, the cost of candidates running a municipal campaign is high, Brown said.
“Some of the barriers that marginalized people have always had to enter into provincial or federal politics, unfortunately, are starting to play more and more in municipal politics.”
Voters are ‘open’ to diversity
In recent focus group discussions Edmonton and Brown facilitated, voters say they are “too open” to vote for different candidates.
Prior to 2021, only 21 women tried to break “this ultimate glass ceiling” at Edmonton City Hall, researchers noted in the YWCA’s podcast Ijena Search, named after the city’s first woman councilor elected 100 years ago.
This year, at least eight women are running for the Oct. 18 municipal election, which “promises to see greater representation from different backgrounds on the next iteration of the city council,” said YWCA spokeswoman Christine McCourt-Reed of Edmonton
But this year has brought new obstacles for political newcomers: Kovid-19, the federal election and voters disagreeing with the provincial government “is vying for political oxygen,” Brown said.
“In the summer we don’t have less well-known candidates who can knock on doors and knock on festivals and get their name out there,” Brown said.
“Now we are coming to the end of the election campaign, and only people who have entered the race with name recognition are coming out of the competition with name recognition.”
Support does not turn into votes
Research has shown – contrary to popular belief – that municipal politics are not more open to diversity than politics at the regional or federal level, said Melanie Thomas, associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
When asked about whether women or people of color were free to vote for eligible candidates, Thomas said the answers were extremely positive.
But these sentiments have not translated into more votes in the polls and more diversity in city councils, Thomas said.
“I think people use it to not support more diverse candidates, like coded rationality, which is probably not the skills or ‘I’m skeptical of their ability,'” Thomas said.
“It is a plausible but flawed assumption that there is much room for diversity, without the task of dismantling systematic things in municipal politics.”
There is also open racism to contest.
Gibbs Abitoy, the only colored woman in the municipality in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta, 25 kilometers northeast of Edmonton, was also attacked by women candidates during the 2017 municipal elections.
“Go back to where you came from” and “If I can’t spell your name, why do I vote for you?”
Abitoy, who is running for re-election, said this year’s scenarios are making it harder for political newcomers to enter.
“2017 was very different from now with the epidemic,” he said.
“It’s definitely easier for people who are already there, already with name recognition.”
Brown said most bureaucrats are easily re-elected and those who have lost their seats are the exception.
But those veteran politicians and the defending members of the council can do much for succession planning by guiding young, diverse people to become future leaders, Brown said.
Thomas said voters can also play a role in “low-information situations,” such as municipal politics.
Instead of relying on demographic indicators, voters will have time before October 18 to see the candidates’ websites and find out what they are, Thomas said.
“Make some effort to get some information,” he said.
“Look to see the kind of experience that candidates are listing … If that experience doesn’t go down, it’s a really good time for self reflection —’Why? ‘